Commission hears review of wind development recommendationsWritten by Christy Hemken
Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Statewide Habitat Protection Supervisor Mary Flanderka was present to give an update on the department’s wind energy development strategy.
“A lot of energy resources really overlap with a lot of important wildlife and aquatic habitat, so there’s always friction in how we develop it,” she told the Commission, noting that the maps recently developed by the state regarding wind energy development conflicts are among the best efforts to create a vision for where energy development should take place in regard to other interests.
“We’re trying to take a look at the conflicts before the land is leased so we don’t have to fight later,” she said, continuing, “We not only have conflicts with energy resource development, but other sister agencies, particularly cultural resources and air quality.”
Flanderka explained the color-coded maps of the state are used when talking to developers as they move forward into the industrial siting stage of planning.
“When we were putting these maps together we focused on reducing habitat fragmentation, minimizing mortality, minimizing project footprint, demonstrating changes in sage grouse populations and providing for a mitigation plan on no less than a one-to-one basis,” said Flanderka.
However, agency personnel acknowledge the great need for more research concerning sage grouse impacts and mitigation. Flanderka said the team was hamstrung when planning. “We don’t have the research to know for sure how to not reduce the habitat, so we were left with a lot of mitigation efforts.”
WGFD Staff Terrestrial Biologist Scott Gamo said the recommendations for wind energy development in sage grouse areas were based on oil and gas recommendations. “We used that as the basis for where we’re going with wind, because that’s where most of the research is. There’s no research on sage grouse and wind energy, so we’re going forward without specific knowledge as to the potential effects of development,” he said.
“Our approach to wind energy, with the Governor’s order as our basis, has two separate ways to go, developing in core areas and outside core areas,” said Gamo.
Within core areas the WGFD requires a four-mile buffer to be drawn around the project area and monitoring of all the leks within that buffer and also a reference area. “We would compare the project area with the reference area to see if changes would occur through development, and the core areas would also include a vigorous monitoring program that would collar hens,” said Gamo.
Monitoring up to five years post-construction would also be required.
For areas outside the core areas the WGFD gave a similar setup, but less stringent, with a two-mile buffer and lek observations but no radio collars.
“Our hope was that through this effort a research program could begin and provide us with the information to better evaluate what actually happens to sage grouse within a wind project, which would lead to mitigation options and scenarios that would help in the future,” said Gamo.
The original WGFD recommendations read, “Wind farm permitting should include a requirement to acquire data on sage grouse response to development and operation.”
However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has strongly advised against any development within core areas, even limited development for research, saying in a letter to the WGFD, “constructing wind farms in core areas, even for research, prior to demonstrating it can be done with no impact to sage grouse negates the usefulness of the core area concept as conservation strategy and brings into question whether adequate regulatory mechanisms are in place to protect the species. Both of these factors are critical in the Endangered Species Act listing decision currently facing the service.”
“We received a flag on the field from FWS about our recommendations,” said Flanderka, noting the federal agency’s response to the WGFD’s request for clarification on research both within and without core areas. “They responded, and they were pretty clear. As a result of that, state policy has become that there will be no development in core areas.”
WGFD Deputy Director John Emmerich said the agency is operating under a different standard for the sage grouse than for other species, because there is a potential for listing they don’t know the impacts. “We’re being more cautious,” he said.
Flanderka said the department hopes to go back through their wind energy development regulations and bring them back for the Commission to review after taking that clarification into account.